Awhile ago , I was surprised to read that most TV series, especially sitcoms, are scripted by people under thirty. I realise that the target audience for TV consists of the young, and that young writers would be more attuned to their interests and lifestyles, but thirty ? Come on !! That’s far too young !! At thirty , most people are recently married ( maybe) ,a few are parents and just starting out in life . While appreciating that the writers views have to be aligned with those of their audience , I can’t help thinking that thirty is far too young to be a cut-off point for anybody.
This idea had been percolating in the back of my mind when I came across Lastingness : The Art of Old Age by Nicholas Delbanco. The title was initially misleading as I thought the book was about how to enjoy one’s senior years . I was quickly disabused as it turned out to be about the effect of age on creativity. Delbanco made some interesting points , with copious examples from the fields of painting , sculpture and literature . Not only were his ruminations thought-provoking , the examples he gave piqued my interest in the lives of some of the artists that he mentioned. You may want to read the book yourself.
I am no expert on Art or Literature but I flatter myself that I’ve read more than my share of mysteries. Delbanco’s book started me thinking about how the creative impulse flourishes or dies in mystery writers as they age. For those who sneer that mysteries are not ” Literature” , I will retort that the best mysteries are literature and , even otherwise , mysteries are among the biggest selling genres and not a subset to be ignored. The questions I asked myself were : Do these writers improve with age ? Or does the quality of their writing fall off as they grow older ? If it does deteriorate , what are the reasons for the decline ? Do the successful begin young or are there those who begin later in life ? Those who craft mysteries often have long careers , thus making them ideal subjects for such investigations. If they are any good at all , they can write for decades , for scores, of years .
Agatha Christie , Elizabeth George , John D. McDonald , Robert B. Parker , Loren D. Estleman, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly , Jon Cleary, Dick Francis , H.R.F. Keating , Alexander McCall Smith , P.D. James ,Peter Robinson , Ruth Rendell and Bill Pronzini are some of the names that come readily to mind when one thinks of writers with long careers. Almost all of them have written a series( sometimes multiple series) of mysteries with the same protagonist and it is fascinating to see how the writing changes over time .
Most successful authors would seem to begin in their thirties and forties and some go on into their eighties though there sometimes seems to be a drop off in their mid-sixties.A good example of sustained excellence is the Australian Jon Cleary ( 1917-2010) who published his first book in 1951 and whose novels about Sydney Inspector Scobie Malone were published over five decades beginning in the sixties. They grew better and better with time and I was not able to discern any loss in quality. Another such example is P.D. James ( 1920-present) who published 13 well crafted , widely admired detective novels between 1962 and 2008. Dick Francis(1920-2010) too enjoyed long-term success ,publishing 42 well received mysteries between 1966 and 2010 but there is some doubt about their authorship. Francis was a champion jockey but was poorly educated and there have been whispers that the novels drew on Franncis’ horse-racing expertise but were actually written by his highly educated wife, Mary. After Mary died in 2000, Francis did not write for a couple of years but then published a few more in collaboration with his son , Felix.
Writing a series of novels with the same hero has its advantages and its disadvantages. On the one hand , the writer does not have to come up with a new cast of characters and a completely new setting each time . However , the danger is that with successive novels a dangerous sameness will creep in, and that the author will repeat himself . It is very easy to fall into a rut and when that happens , the novels become formulaic . The quality diminishes, not because the author has grown older, but because he has grown lazy. Except for the very best writers, like Michael Connelly , this happens sooner or later. I’ve observed it happen with Alexander McCall -Smith ( the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series), Loren D. Estleman ( his private eye, Amos Walker), Robert B. Parker ( and his Boston based private eye, Spenser) , P.C . Doherty( Hugh Corbett mysteries, Ancient Egyptian mysteries and at least 4 other series) and John D.McDonald ( famous in the 70’s for his Travis McGee novels). The biggest slide is in the work of Robert B . Parker ( 1932-2010) who died at his writing desk while working on his latest novel . The author of 62 books , including 4o mysteries , his early novels about the hardboiled Boston private eye Spenser , were really good but later on became caricatures of themselves . But was their decline due to age or laziness ?
There is a cut-off point beyond which the writer would be better off moving on to a new hero , a new setting. However , this is easier said than done . Readers grow accustomed to a certain series character and never tire of reading about him . They don’t seem to notice that the writing is not as good as it used to be . Who can blame authors for wanting to keep a good thing going ? This may have been the case with Robert B. Parker whose readers continued to lap up his novels about Spenser, about the female private eye Sunny Randall and about Paradise police chief Jesse Stone even though the writing , towards the end , was atrocious.
Also , authors rarely have more than one good series in them . Michael Connelly is an exception having authored two successful ( and good ) series with his Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller novels. McCallSmith had great success with his Botswana novels of the lovable Mma . Ramotswe but his Sunday Philosophy Club novels featuring Elizabeth Dalhousie are nowhere near as good , at least in my opinion.
What do I then conclude ? Well, I think that mystery writers grow usually get better as they age. The characters are richer , the plotting more intricate and the writing more polished . If there is a diminution in quality it is not that age has dulled their creativity but that they have become lazy , content to repeat themselves, seeking economic success over artistic integrity. Except in a few cases where they have turned to writing after retirement, they usually start getting published in their thirties or forties.As in any other profession ,it is difficult to turn one’s hand to something new once you have reached your senior years .